‘The Politics of Voice’ raises deep questions about identity

March 4, 2016

Few artists can cohesively combine musical precision with the great wealth of vocally expressible human emotion as Grammy-nominated soprano, Tony Arnold, did this past Sunday night in Slosberg recital hall. Recipient of the 2015 Brandeis Creative Arts Award, Arnold, through her residency, has become an active participant in the discussion by exploring the relationship between one’s voice and the inherent ways in which it can be altered by others’ perceptions. Sunday night’s performance and discussion, “The Politics of Voice,” sought to tackle these issues, featuring a number of talented performers alongside Arnold herself.

The featured artist of the night, Arnold opened with a haunting rendition of “Five Songs on texts of Stefan George, Op. 4,” by Anton Webern, an Austrian composer who specialized in the 12-tone technique of composition not unlike his mentor, the king of atonality, Schoenberg himself. Alongside pianist Jacob Greenberg, Arnold presented the piece with a considerable amount of tact indicative of her many years of prior training and performance. Also performed that night was Webern’s “Three Songs on texts of Hildegard Jone, Op. 25,” in a very similar style to the opening piece of the night, as well as a tonally unique piece by guest composer, Jason Eckardt, entitled, “Dithyramb.” The former song, though primarily atonal as well, featured myriad vocalizations apart from and intertwined with traditional operatic stylings that builds upon the relationship between the voice and the self by incorporating symbolic speech. A solo excerpt from a much larger piece called “Tongues,” “Dithyramb” seeks to expose the gap between the artist’s rendering of a piece and the public perception. As Eckhardt states, “There is this idea of speaking and communicating, but there’s nothing actually being said. It seems as if it were this unintelligible language, so the idea of projecting semantically something that can’t possibly be received is an important aspect of the piece and changes the audience’s perception of the way in which the voice is used.”

Another of the night’s performers, trained violist and vocalist Wendy Richman, simultaneously combined both of her talents in another of Eckhardt’s pieces, “to be held…” Richman, for whom the piece was originally written in 2012, vehemently supports the unconventional combination of viola and voice, citing similar ideas regarding voice and identity as Arnold. “I try not to think of it as a binary,” she says. “There is no sound that we make and there certainly is no performance that we give that is divorced from its political situation, that is divorced from the psychological situation of the people who give it. We think of these things as separate, but they are not. The tension in that imagined binary is very interesting, and it makes us push up against parts of ourselves and parts of our environments and parts of each other that produces interesting and productive things.” This tension was exceedingly present in Richman’s performance, adding a sense of both unease and curiosity at sounds that could only be described as ethereal. “However, the goal is not to stay in those places,” remarks Richman. “The goal is to explore and make more porous and make more alive the spaces that are in between, the spaces that make these binaries into one thing.”

Similarly, flutist Claire Chase performed another Eckhardt piece titled “The Silenced.” Incorporating a great deal of theatrics into her performance, it was clearly demonstrated that Chase was saying more through her instrument than simply the composed notes. Like Richman and Arnold before her, Chase also utilized a great deal of percussive vocalizations alongside her more traditional flute playing. The contrast between the purity of the flute and the harsh, often guttural vocalizations emphasizes the inherent struggle between personal identity, and others’ perceptions of one’s outward projection of it. Eckhardt writes, “‘The Silenced’ is a meditation on those who are muted, by force or by political, economic or social circumstances, yet still struggle to be heard.”

Though primarily intended to highlight the ability of and to propagate the musical ideology held close the heart of resident Tony Arnold, “The Politics of Voice” served to accomplish much more, featuring many contemporary artists with a strong interest in atonal music. Yet more prevalent was the abundance of thought-provoking themes and questions brought forth by the musicians, as well as Eckhardt and actor James Currie, about the inevitable misinterpretation and liberation involved in self-expression.

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